Why ‘Telefone’ Matters: Finding Space for Women in Hip-Hop

 

“I’m a f**king rapper. You don’t have to keep saying ‘female.’”

—Noname

 

Switch on the radio and chances are you’ll hear a rap song playing. From Drake and Future to Kanye and Fetty Wap, rap is taking over as the music genre of this generation. Most of these songs are catchy, upbeat, and energetic.  But when the beat is stripped away, what remains are just the lyrics. And unfortunately, hidden under the surface of most of these songs are layers of misogyny.

The question we should then ask ourselves is this: does it matter that, in 2016, most of the rap songs dominating “Today’s Top Hits” are still filled with lyrics boasting of the sexual objectification and degradation of women? Today there are so many men and women who identify as feminists, and more recently, a myriad of professional male athletes have even been supporting the feminist movement by sharing photos on social media of them wearing “Wild Feminists” t-shirts. Yet despite the public denunciation of sexism, many of these feminists still listen to and support misogynistic hip-hop music that disseminates the ideals that feminists are fighting to uproot. How can we condemn others for their sexist remarks and simultaneously bob our heads to songs that contain these same sexist sentiments, which are barely masked by the rattle of high-hats and a blaring bassline?

Hip-hop has long been a space for those marginalized, discriminated against, and deprived of their humanity. Specifically for African Americans, hip-hop has been a medium for not only creative and artistic expression, but for political and social commentary as well. It has been revolutionary as a musical and cultural movement. However, there often seems to be an unavoidable dichotomy between mainstream hip-hop and feminism. It is true that there have been successful female rappers, ranging from Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott to Nicki Minaj, who have paved a way for women in hip-hop. However, their work has frequently been hypersexualized or deemed lesser than the work of their male counterparts.

This is why Noname matters—because Noname is creating a space for women in hip-hop.

A rising hip-hop artist, she recently released her first mixtape, Telefone, which addresses the racism and oppression that people of color, particularly women of color, endure daily. She tackles emotionally strenuous topics such as abortion and police brutality. Noname’s music provides a voice that is both genuine and unrestrained. Her musical style—light, bubbly, and nostalgic—hides within it social commentary that is much darker, provoking profound reflection on what it means to be a woman, as well as a woman of color, in today’s world.

In the track, “Bye Bye Baby,” Noname recounts the story of an abortion, rapping from both the mother’s perspective and the baby’s. This song, which contains subject matter that is intrinsically heavy, is told so sweetly and smoothly by Noname, whose effortless rhymes and sophisticated lyricism bring life and love to a topic often stripped of raw emotion. In a recent interview with Fader, Noname says:

What I tried to do is make a love song for [the mother and the child]. I feel like whenever I hear people talking about abortion, they typically take the love out of it, as if it can never be a loving act — as if it’s only done out of hate or desperation. I know women who have gone through that experience. And there hasn’t been like, a song for them, or a moment of catharsis and healing for them in music.

Indeed, Noname is doing hip-hop her way. In “Yesterday,” the opening track of Telefone, Noname raps, “Me only wearing tennis shoes to clubs with dress codes / Cause f**k they clubs.” This line, slightly lighter and more humorous than most in her mixtape, perfectly encaptures Noname’s resilience against social norms that construct limited definitions of femininity. And to girls who must face the vulnerability of finding their own identity as women, this message is empowering.

While Noname’s music dives into issues important to women that are rarely faced head-on in hip-hop, she also does not hesitate to address the systemic police brutality that is taking the lives of so many young African Americans today. In “Casket Pretty,” Noname’s beautiful and melancholy tribute to those being lost in her community, she recognizes the ultimate fear that so many blacks have for their friends, family, and often even for themselves: “Ain’t no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home / I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring.”

Yet even when Noname is confronting issues that are difficult to address, her overall message is one of hope and overcoming in the face of adversity and hate. Cam O’bi, featured on Noname’s “Diddy Bop,” sums this up perfectly when he sings, “With stars in my pocket, dreaming ‘bout making my hood glow.” Telefone, which is produced by and features a plethora of talented artists, in itself manages to become a community project as well as Noname’s own musical diary. Throughout her mixtape, Noname confesses her struggle with drugs and alcohol, which she has given up, coming to an essential conclusion for herself and everyone elsethat “Love is all I need.”

There has never been a rapper quite like Noname, and never a project quite like Telefone. Noname, a Chicago native and close friend of Chance The Rapper, has taken a page out of his book and released all her music for free over streaming platforms such as SoundCloud. By taking the big-name labels out of her music, Noname has produced a mixtape that’s as sincere and sensitive as she is. Even down to her name, Noname and her hip-hop essence is one of acceptance. Formerly known as “Noname Gypsy,” Noname actually decided to drop the “Gypsy” from her name because of its derogatory connotations.

However slowly, the past couple of years have shown us glimpses of the potential of hip-hop to become a community changing for the better. 2015 saw Kendrick Lamar’s powerful and political To Pimp a Butterfly, which may be one of the most influential albums for this generation. And this year, Chance the Rapper is getting the recognition he has long deserved with his spiritual and soulful Coloring Book, releasing it without a label but with the freedom to rap about religion or anything else he wants.

But despite the ever-rising potential of hip-hop, there is still much progress to be made. At its core, the genre is still deeply ingrained with a misogynistic nature. And this is why Noname is important: because her project, Telefone, shows us that it is indeed possible to push hip-hop in a new direction and utilize rap as a base to create a more inclusive community, which could be free of misogyny, homophobia, and racism and serve as a creative platform for all.

Some would claim that now, not the ‘80s or ‘90s, is hip-hop’s true “Golden Age.” If it is, then it’s all the more important that we stop and think about where hip-hop is going. And Noname might just be one of the voices that can help us figure that out.

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